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Detroit gets federal grant for historic district commemorating landmark civil rights case

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

A new federal grant will help Detroit expand the historic district around the site of an iconic civil rights battle.

That battle took place in 1925, when African-American doctor Ossian Sweet’s family moved into a new home on Garland Street on Detroit’s east side. At the time, it was an all-white neighborhood.

Soon after the Sweets moved in, a violent white mob descended on the home. Sweet, along with family and friends gathered inside, decided to defend themselves. As the violence intensified, shots from inside the home killed a man on the street outside.

Sweet went on trial for murder, where he was famously defended by attorney Clarence Darrow. Darrow ultimately won Sweet’s brother, Henry, an acquittal, and prosecutors ultimately dismissed the charges against Sweet.

That story — and the larger history of racial violence and housing discrimination it has come to symbolize — will now be commemorated with an expanded historic district surrounding the Sweet home, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the African American Civil Rights program of the Historic Preservation Fund, National Park Service, and Department of the Interior.
Currently, only the Sweet home itself is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The city plans to carve out a portion of the home that will be open to the public at scheduled times. There are also plans to rehabilitate two adjacent properties that were involved in the incident, and create displays outlining the historic significance of the site

“As Detroit continues to move forward, we cannot forget where we’ve been,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “Preserving the Dr. Sweet home and expanding the historic district will give us a chance to reflect on the struggles many African American families have faced and celebrate champions like Dr. Sweet and others, who stood up for what is right.”

Monica Baxter grew up and still lives in the Sweet home. She says she welcomes its coming transformation into a living monument to civil rights struggles.

“We want to enjoy it. We’re looking forward to it,” Baxter said. “We’re just so grateful.”

Baxter also welcomes the promise of greater neighborhood investment surrounding the project.

The neighborhood where the Sweet home is located, known as East Village, is one of the city’s targeted neighborhoods for its $130 million Strategic Neighborhood Fund. A proposed planning framework for the larger area also includes streetscape improvements, new housing and parks, and blight elimination.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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